He’s the solo skipper who might remind you of Keith Richards. A rugged, hawkish face topped off with an unruly mop of black curly hair, Jean Le Cam was the rockstar of this year’s Vendée Globe. When he finished, he danced, fists pumping the air, to French rocker Johnny Hallyday played loud as he made his way up the channel of Les Sables d’Olonne.
Appearing on the race’s live video calls, Le Cam updated his fans with a self-conscious grin and the famous twinkle in his eye. “Clack, clack, clack,” he would mutter, mimicking the rotating camera as it spun to show outside his beautifully optimised IMOCA 60 (which he refers to as ‘Hubert’). “Why are you looking at me?” he demanded in his gravelly voice, scowling into the lens.
‘The King’, as he is known, surprised a lot of people by running in the top 10 all the way around the world and then finishing 4th overall in his fifth Vendée Globe. That’s because, at 61, Le Cam was the oldest skipper in the fleet and his daggerboard-configured boat (the 2008 Farr design that Michel Desjoyeaux won within 2009) was not one of the latest foiling models.
But those who know him were not in the least bit surprised. What they saw was the evergreen Breton legend bringing his usual ingredients to bear: immaculate preparation, a racecourse he had encountered four times before (solo, as well as double-handed and crewed round the worlds) and self-confidence in his own ability, born of a 40-year career at the top of professional ocean racing.
Le Cam earned his ‘King’ nickname thanks to his utter domination of the Solitaire du Figaro circuit 20 years ago, which he won three times. He is one of those unreconstructed characters in French sailing (Francis Joyon is another) who has never tried to change his natural persona to meet the needs of commercial backers.
Outspoken, and a man who loves a drink and a smoke, he can be, by his own admission, a pain in the arse. But his relationship with boats and the sea gives him a unique aura. He has a knack of explaining why he loves sailing, and what motivates him, that people find compelling.
When he reached Les Sables d’Olonne at the end of January, he was exhausted by the stress of worrying whether his boat would fall apart before he got there (due to delamination issues he only revealed at the finish), his diction slurring. Yet Le Cam spoke like a philosopher about why he is still doing the Vendée Globe – and who is to bet against him turning up again in 2024?
“It’s the dreams,” he said. “It’s the extremes, it’s about things which are unreachable in daily life. You need to know what is bad to know what is good. You need to know unhappiness to know what is love… When you start accumulating difficulties, it becomes hell. And later on when you get out of it, it is true happiness. Two days ago it was quite difficult, a week ago it was horrible but today it is incredible.”
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